Neil Kamimura forges his own path and continues a family legacy as a knifemaker.
One might say Neil Kamimura was born to forge steel into knives. After all, his middle name “Teiji” is an homage to his great-grandfather Teiji Kamimura, who immigrated to Hawaii in the 1920s, apprenticed as a blacksmith at a plantation, and went on to start a successful company creating knives for plantation workers. One of Hawaii’s first Japanese business owners, the elder Kamimura became famous for his sugar cane knives, which he continued to create until he died at age 89 when his great-grandson was only nine.
Kamimura unfortunately also inherited a legacy of mental health challenges. His maternal grandfather died by suicide when his mother was young. When Kamimura was nine, his maternal grandmother passed away, an event that triggered traumatic memories for his mother. Soon after, she suffered a mental breakdown and became suicidal. “My dad tried everything to fix my mom,” says Kamimura, who soon found himself in a role reversal: a 13-year-old taking care of his mother, making sure she was safe.
His mother died by suicide in June 2016. Sensing the barrage of emotions Kamimura was experiencing, a friend gave him a forge and anvil and told him to pound out his feelings. And so he did, finding solace in the repetitive—almost meditative—act of heating and pounding molten metal until it took shape, teaching himself the skills that his great-grandfather made famous on the islands. After he created his first knife from a 1949 Cadillac leaf spring, Kamimura, an electrician by trade, decided to turn his attention solely to making knives.
The beginning of bladesmithing
He found the work to be an effective therapy for dealing with with the grief, guilt, confusion, and pain that resonated after his mother’s death. However, his vigilance over his mother had already taken its toll: Kamimura battled depression and suicidal thoughts. He married young; had a son, Maddix; and at the insistence of his first wife, started taking prescription medicine. He stopped after they divorced, preferring to manage his own mental health. “It was hard to go off medications and try to level out and still be a dad,” he admits. Acknowledging his own suicidal tendencies, he decided to work on ways to let go of his grief and trauma through activities such as writing.
One of life’s little pleasures for Kamimura was watching the blacksmiths on the History Channel’s Forged in Fire with Maddix. He would critique the contestants—who were challenged to make the knives or historical weapons out of limited or unusual materials—but as his skills grew, he began boasting that he could do better. After hearing his repeated claims, Kamimura’s then-girlfriend decided to write to the show producers. To his surprise, they contacted him the next day to book him on an upcoming episode. “When they called I had only been making knives for six months and would only have been making knives for eight months when I was on the show,” he says. “I was completely self-taught. I would watch J. Neilson’s videos—and now there he would be, judging me.”
Making a name
Thinking of Maddix and making him proud, Kamimura signed on to do an episode—and proved himself right, beating out three experienced knife-makers with his version of an Italian cinquedea. As the winner, he was immediately invited to go head-to-head with four other episode winners in The Ultimate Champions Edition: The Tai Chi Sword, which was filmed around the emotional anniversary of his mother’s death. “This was a heavy episode, too, because I was going against guys like Ray Smith, who has been doing this as long as I’ve been alive,” he says.
Kamimura beat Smith and came in second. “It was good that I did not win as that would be unrealistic: I had only been making knives for a year,” he says.
After his appearances on Forged in Fire, the opportunities to train and collaborate with masters poured in. Kamimura acknowledges that the people he trained with, such as Neilson, have helped make him great. “Once I found success, I wanted to do better. I had the money to travel and train with the best people in the world,” he says. “When you learn from a master smith who has been doing this 50 years, it wipes a lifetime off of mistakes.”
A self-described workaholic, Kamimura makes knives seven days a week from his home in Hawaii. “This allows me to eat lunch with my kids,” he says. In addition to Maddix, 13, Kamimura’s wife, Flora and their infant Ruda his adopted son, Bryan 28, also lives on the property.
Whenever possible, Kamimura uses American-made tools and sources metal from salvage, often visiting junkyards for reclaimed steel. He calls his knives “real and raw:” Primarily hammer-shaped and with minimal grinding and no measuring, each is truly one-of-a-kind. He tests the blades extensively for functionality and regards the knives as an art form, paying attention, as his great-grandfather before him did, to their lines and curves. “My main goal is for someone to look at the knife not just as a weapon or a killing instrument, but as a piece of art that that is taken from raw materials,” he says.
His clients range from mothers to celebrities. He recently made a knife for Brian Mendoza to use in a recent Netflix movie Sweet Girl and collaborated on projects—like creating a forging summer camp for underprivileged children—with musician Zac Brown. Just as much, he enjoys interacting with the customers and creating a knife that they can pass down through generations.
While Kamimura sees himself as “a very simple person who makes knives every day,” he is quick to note, “I’m trying to change the history of knife making. I really want to be seen as the person who has done more than anybody else in the knife industry.”
Above all, what he is most proud of is the example he has set for Maddix. “Every day, he sees that hard work pays off,” he says.
When he is not making knives, Kamimura is an advocate for mental health—especially as it affects veterans. “I work with Navy SEALs. They’re taught to just turn everything off, and then they’re dropped off at home. They don’t know how to be with their wives because all those senses were turned off,” he says.
Although difficult, he freely tells and retells his story, which includes details of his own suicide attempts, in the hope of saving lives. “Giving that speech is heavy, so when I’m asked, I have to sometimes think about it,” he says. “I tell them that it’s okay to do something selfish—like how I took up knifemaking, which changed my life. I tell them we are a lot like the blade: Being heated makes us great.”
In addition to speeches, he embraces opportunities to make knives with people in the military. “There’s something about forging a knife that makes people open up,” he says. “You put so much energy into that blade, then you stand there waiting for it to heat up. That’s when people start talking about what’s really bothering them.”
People whose lives he’s touched let him know that his words make an impact. “I knew a girl who made knives whose husband had tried to kill himself,” he says. “She told me she was at the hospital with her two kids and was thinking of leaving him when her phone beeped. It was a notification that I posted something—and it was my motivational speech. She watched it and bawled her eyes out. Then she made her husband watch it.”
And therein lies his other family legacy: The skills Kamimura developed while helping his mother and taking care of his own mental health are now being channeled into potentially saving the lives of countless strangers.
Don’t let mental health bring you down. Click here for more solutions.